Treasury Secretary Stephen Mnuchin declared that SDR’s would allow poor countries to "print" new money. It has a puny Catastrophe Containment and Relief Trust with a meager $500 million for debt-service relief. On April 13th alone, 25 countries lined up with cups in hand. Within a week, half the world’s countries – over a hundred – had joined the queue. The Fund was compelled to cancel repayments worth $214 million for the poorest countries for the next six months. This skirts the much larger sums owed to private lenders.
Third, policy makers in debtor countries managed their national crises with the hope that recovery would come soon. Without their cooperation, some would say compliance, global finance would have collapsed. This often came at a brutal price. But as the current crisis drags out, and as creditors refuse to bend, debtor countries will be pushed to the brink of default. Throw in the fiscal demands of a spreading virus, and policymakers will face the agonizing choice over whether to equip local hospitals or pay their foreign lenders.
In this looming crisis, Argentina is particularly vulnerable. Its debt is worth almost 90 per cent of its national economy. Argentina threatens to start a cascade in the same way that Thailand set off the Asian meltdown of 1997 – but in more ominous circumstances. Over the last decade, Argentina struggled with slow growth, rising public debt, and inflation. To help the flailing government of Mauricio Macri to reduce fiscal deficit by replacing it with foreign credit and to stop $50 billion in capital flight, the IMF extended a historic loan in 2018. But instead of righting the books, Macri used the money to reach the 2019 elections without a major economic crisis. His successor, Alberto Fernandez, inherited a mess and is embroiled in a feud over $66 billion in debt.
How Argentina copes with its creditors and how creditors behave will either create a template for others or lead to a cascade of defaults. As Covid-19 moved in, Martín Guzmán, an Ivy League-educated Finance Minister with IMF backing and an expert in debt restructuring, suggested a delay in payments and a discount on interest. Creditors, led by three different bondholder groups, dug in their heels. Two weeks ago, Argentina defaulted on a $500 million payment. Now, the IMF is urging the government in Buenos Aires to make concessions for fear that an Argentine standoff turns into a global disaster.